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Valance Family Series | Coulter Family Series Historical
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(Kendrick/Coulter #6)
January 2005
ISBN: 0-451-21380-7

Lightning flashed in the leaden sky, each brilliant burst quickly followed by a deafening clap of thunder. Rain pelted the vehicle with such force it sounded like pea gravel striking metal. Peering through the windshield, Isaiah Coulter could barely make out the houses along the tree-lined street. He dreaded the thought of making the fifty-foot sprint to the covered front porch of his parents' suburban residence. Not for the first time since this storm had started, he wished he'd thought to grab a jacket before leaving home that morning.

When he pushed open the door of the Hummer, his shirtsleeve grew instantly wet and icy, compliments of the high mountain chill that always descended on Crystal Falls, Oregon, when the autumn sunlight was obscured by clouds. Isaiah clenched his teeth, sprang from the vehicle, and broke into a run even as he slammed the door behind him. Water streamed from his face by the time he reached the porch, and dripping shanks of dark brown hair were plastered to his forehead. Swearing under his breath, he raked back the strands with rain-slicked fingers and slapped uselessly at his soaked shirt.

"Mom?" he yelled as he opened the front door. "It's me, Isaiah!"

As he wiped his feet on the entryway rug, Isaiah scanned the tidy living area, barely registering any details because the furniture and decorations were so familiar. On the longest wall, the faces of his brothers and sister as well as his own stared back at him from countless framed photographs, a pictorial record of their lives from infancy to adulthood. The delicious smells of warm apple pie and freshly brewed coffee greeted him as he moved farther into the room.

"In the kitchen, dear heart!" Mary Coulter called. Following his nose and the sound of her voice, Isaiah stepped into the archway. Standing at the kitchen counter, his mother flashed him a welcoming smile. Her plump cheeks rosy, her dark hair lying in loose curls around her face, she was, in Isaiah's eyes, just as beautiful at almost sixty as she had been twenty years ago.

"How's my best girl?" he asked.

"Hmph," she responded with a shake of her head. "And isn't that a fine kettle of fish? The handsomest of all my sons, and you're still single."

Isaiah knew very well that he wasn't the handsomest pup in her litter. In truth, he and his brothers were all carbon copies of their dad and looked pretty much the same. As for his being single, he liked it that way. Veterinary medicine was a demanding field, leaving him little time for personal relationships. Someday, when his life grew less hectic, he might consider settling down, but for now he needed to stay focused on his career.

"Ah, Mom," he replied in a whiny baritone, his stock response when Mary needled him about getting married.

"Don't you 'ah, Mom' me. Just look at you, Isaiah Joel, drenched to the skin and blue around the lips. You need someone with good sense to look after you." She tossed him a hand towel. "Mop up as best you can before you make puddles on my floor." She glanced at his boots. "If you've tracked in horse dung, I'll snatch you bald-headed."

Catching the towel in one fist, Isaiah blotted his face and dried the back of his neck. "My boots got pressure-washed coming across the lawn, and I wiped them dry on the rug. As for my lips being blue, that's because it's colder than a well digger's ass out there."

"Your lips are blue because it's October and you aren't wearing a coat. A man with your IQ should know better."

"I know better. I just forgot."

"You'd forget your head if it weren't attached. Absentminded, I guess, always thinking deep thoughts and oblivious to everything else."

"It was sunny when I left the house this morning."

"Grab your father's sweatshirt there on the back of the chair and put it on. You'll catch your death, sitting around in that wet thing you're wearing."

Isaiah did feel cold. He quickly divested himself of the wet garment, plucked a plastic shopping sack from the cloth bag holder hanging on a hook by the kitchen door, and stuffed the shirt inside. A moment later, as he drew his dad's sweatshirt over his head, his mother clucked her tongue, saying, "Your ribs are showing, Isaiah Joel. I swear, a high wind would blow you away."

Isaiah knew very well he wasn't that thin. "Ah, Mom." Accustomed to Mary's scolding, Isaiah bent to kiss her cheek before taking a chair at the round oak table in one corner of the kitchen. "Man, that pie sure does smell good."

"Made it especially for you." Mary took two pie plates from the cupboard and set herself to the task of cutting the dessert. "It's not often anymore that I know ahead of time when you're coming over."

"If apple pie is my reward, I'll start calling in advance. It's my favorite."

Mary smiled. "Yes, I know. I'm your mother, remember."

"Thanks for making me a pie, Mom. That was sweet of you." Isaiah settled back on the chair. "Where's Pop?"

Mary released a shrill little sigh, conveying with a lift of her shoulders that her trials were many as Harv Coulter's wife. "He set out early this morning to meet Zeke at Natalie's supper club. Something's gone haywire with the refrigeration system, I think. After that, he was heading out to the Lazy J to help Hank and Jake mend fence line. His back has been giving him fits all week, but do you think he'll take it easy?"

"He enjoys helping at the ranch, Mom. Just because he's retired doesn't mean he has to stop living."

"I know." Mary released another sigh. "And Jake and Hank really do need the help right now. With Molly expecting again, and Carly trying to care for a baby so soon after eye surgery, both your brothers are spread mighty thin."

Isaiah had been so busy that he'd nearly forgotten his sister-in-law's corneal surgery. "How's Carly doing?"

"Good." Mary beamed a glad smile as she licked a bit of pie filling from her fingertip. "She can see, at any rate. The major problem right now is retraining her thingamajig."

"Her visual cortex," Isaiah offered.

"There you go," she agreed with a nod. "All those medical terms go in one of my ears and out the other. Hank called last night. He bought some red duct tape and lined the edges of all the steps so Carly can tell where one ends and another starts. She almost fell on the front porch yesterday when she was carrying Hank Junior."

Isaiah winced. "No wonder Hank's taping the steps."

"He says it helped." Mary opened another cupboard to get some coffee mugs. "With no depth perception, she can't see the stair treads clearly."

Enjoying the warmth that still radiated from the oven, Isaiah sighed and flexed his shoulders. It was strange, he thought, how quickly he could always relax in his mother's kitchen. He guessed it was because the room was a reflection of the woman herself: small, colorful, busy, and full of love. The fact that Mary Coulter loved her children was in evidence everywhere he looked. All available surfaces were crowded with plaster hand-prints, school portraits, art projects gone yellow with age, and silly stuff that he or his siblings had given her over the years, including a knickknack shelf filled with some old-fashioned power-pole insulators that Isaiah and his twin brother, Tucker, had carted home one long-ago day. Now it appeared that Mary had begun to collect grandchild keepsakes. Jake's son's baby booties were pinned to the ruffled white curtains at the window, and the front of the refrigerator was hidden by his crayon creations, all of which were nothing but scribbles. Normally Isaiah disliked clutter, but somehow his mom made it work. The crowded walls and splashes of color were not only pleasing to the eye but also oddly soothing.

The tension that had knotted his shoulders all day eased away as he rocked back in the chair. He observed his mother with a faint smile. Even her apron took him back through the years, a white frilly thing with embroidery on the pockets that she'd worn for as long as he could remember. As always, she chattered nonstop as she worked, launching into a story about some neighbor's granddaughter as she drew a half-gallon of vanilla ice cream from the freezer and rifled through a drawer, looking for the scoop. Isaiah listened with only half an ear, his mind on a cow he'd treated that morning.

"Anyway," Mary said as she advanced on the table, "the reason I asked you to stop by is because I have an idea I want to run by you."

Isaiah accepted the plate his mother slid toward him. "An idea about what?" he asked as he forked up a chunk of juicy fruit and flaky golden crust that dripped with melting ice cream.

"Not what, who," Mary corrected. After filling two mugs with piping-hot coffee, she returned to the table and took a seat across from him. "It's about Laura, the young woman I've been telling you about."

Isaiah didn't recall his mother's saying anything about someone named Laura. He sent her a bewildered look. Mary huffed in exasperation. "Haven't you been listening?"

Isaiah swallowed and nodded. "Mostly."

"Mostly?" He lowered his fork back to the plate. "I'm sorry, Mom. I guess I'm a little distracted."

"What is it this time?" Mary asked resignedly. "Not another rat fatality, I hope."

Isaiah winced at the reminder. Two months ago, a new tech had prepped some lady's pet rat for abdominal surgery. After shaving the rodent's belly, she'd tried to vacuum up the fur and accidentally sucked up the rat as well. Isaiah had been left to explain the rat's unexpected demise to its owner. It hadn't been one his finest moments as a veterinarian. "No, not a rat, thank God. A cow this time. Uterine infection. I've done three flushes and hit her with every antibiotic there is. If this next round doesn't work, I'll have to put her down. The farmer's a young guy with a growing family. He can't afford to lose her."

Mary reached across the table to push a tendril of hair from Isaiah's eyes. "Oh, sweetie, you worry me so."

Isaiah caught her wrist to kiss her fingertips. "I'm fine, Mom. Just busy, that's all."

"You're not fine," she insisted. "Just look at you."

Isaiah glanced down. "What's wrong with me?"

"You've lost weight, for starters, and your hair is so long it's almost to your collar. And where on earth did you find that shirt you were wearing? It looked like you slept in it."

Isaiah shrugged. "It just looked bad because it was wet." "Wet, my foot— it was wrinkled." "I forgot to take it from the dryer, that's all. I shook it out." Mary rolled her blue eyes toward the ceiling. "And your weight? You can't be eating right. What did you have for breakfast?"

Isaiah tried to recall and couldn't. "Yogurt, probably."


"A dog got run over, Mom. I was in surgery at six forty-five."

"So you ate no breakfast." Mary nodded sagely. "And lunch? Please tell me you had something."

He'd wolfed down a package of Twinkies and a bag of Cheese Nips between ranch calls. "I ate while I was driving." He glanced guiltily at his hands, hoping his fingers weren't stained yellow. "I'm doing fine. Really."

"Ha. If ever a man needed a wife to look after him, it's you."

"Are we back to that again?" Isaiah chuckled. "Let up on me, Mom. Like getting married would solve everything? It's a new generation. Young women today don't stay at home and look after their husbands. They have demanding careers of their own, and that's just as it should be."

"There must be a few old-fashioned girls left out there."

If so, Isaiah hadn't encountered any. Not that he'd been looking. "Maybe so," he settled for saying, then glanced at his watch. "About that idea you wanted to discuss. If we're going to talk, we need to get cracking. I have to be back at the clinic by three."

Mary took a sip of her coffee. "Do you remember my neighbor, Etta Parks?"

"The old lady two doors down?" A fleeting image of a pretty, silver-haired woman passed through Isaiah's mind. "Yeah, I remember her."

Mary smiled. "Laura is her granddaughter. She's a lovely, sweet girl. Almost every day she comes by to see Etta while she's out walking the dogs."

"Dogs? How many does she have?"

"Oh, they're not actually hers." Mary's blue eyes went misty. "That's one of the ways Laura supplements her disability income, by walking people's dogs or caring for them while the owners are on vacation. I think she does other things as well, housework and ironing and such. But it's her knack with animals that made me think of you."

Isaiah realized that his mother was working her way up to something. He glanced at his watch again. "I'm sorry. I'm not following. A disability income, did you say?"

Mary filled in the blanks, explaining how Etta's granddaughter had gone swimming with friends five years before and hit her head on a rock when she dove into the river. "It left her with brain damage of some kind," she explained.

Isaiah dimly recalled hearing about that. For a while the young woman had been comatose and not expected to live, if he remembered correctly.

"When Laura awakened after the accident," his mother went on, "her whole life had been destroyed. I can't remember now what she did for a living— a scientist of some kind, I think. Very good income, lots of travel. Then, in a twinkling, it was all taken from her. Now she lives in an apartment over someone's garage and walks dogs to earn money."

"That's a shame," Isaiah said. And he meant it with all his heart. "I'm just not sure what any of this has to do with me."

The corners of Mary's mouth tightened. "Laura is such a pretty girl, and sweet as can be. Her life would be so much fuller if she had a regular job and could meet people her own age."

Isaiah shifted uneasily on the chair. "I suppose that's true, Mom, but practically speaking, what kind of work can a woman with brain damage do?"

"Well, you see, that's just the thing." Mary leaned slightly forward, her expression suddenly earnest. "She's absolutely wonderful with dogs, Isaiah. It occurred to me the other day that she might make an excellent kennel keeper."

"Whoa." Isaiah held up a hand. "You're not suggesting what I think you are. A kennel keeper at our clinic?" He shook his head emphatically. "Tucker and I are running a veterinary hospital, Mother, not a charity organization. We can't hire someone with brain damage."

"But, dear heart, Laura's brain damage isn't that bad. I never even knew something was wrong until Etta mentioned it."

"No, absolutely not. I'm sorry, Mom, I really am. I'd like to help her out, but there's just no way. Remember the rat? A perfectly normal woman pulled that stunt. Tucker and I have worked hard to get where we are. Our reputations as vets are on the line. We're responsible for the well-being of people's pets and farm animals. We can't have a mentally handicapped woman working at our clinic."

Mary pursed her lips. Isaiah knew that look. She'd used it on him a fair thousand times when he was a kid. "If you'll remember, your father and I loaned you boys the start-up capital you needed to open that clinic."

Isaiah pinched the bridge of his nose. That was true. The debt had been repaid in full, but that was beside the point. "I know we owe you a lot, Mom."

Mary nodded. "And it's not often I ask a favor."

Why, Isaiah wondered, was it so difficult for him to tell his mother no? He was thirty-three years old and hadn't lived at home since he started college. He guessed it was because his parents had always come through for him without fail when he needed them, and he felt obligated to do the same for them. "That's true. You seldom ask me for anything."

"Well, I'm asking now," she said softly. "I honestly believe Laura can do the work, Isaiah, and I know for a fact that you have trouble finding good kennel keepers."

Isaiah couldn't argue that point. Hosing dog poop down kennel drains wasn't a glamorous job.

"It seems to me the least you can do," Mary went on, "is interview her for the position." She spread her hands in appeal. "If you decide she isn't capable of doing the work, fine. I know you have a kind heart, and I'll trust your judgment. But won't you at least give her a chance?"

Isaiah knew when he was licked. "I'll have to talk with Tucker first. We're partners, remember. We don't make decisions like that independently."

Mary arched a sable eyebrow. "Have Tucker call me if he has any objections. I'll handle him."

Isaiah had no doubt that his mother would do just that.

Chapter One

Sweat filmed Laura Townsend's palms as she parked her old red Mazda in front of the Crystal Falls Animal Clinic. A real job. Since her phone conversation with Mary Coulter last night, those three words had danced repeatedly through her mind. She was thrilled at the prospect of working in an official capacity again, but she was also terrified. What if Isaiah Coulter actually hired her, and then she made some awful mistake?

After slipping the car keys into her purse, Laura sat for a moment, staring through the streaked windshield at the veterinary clinic, which faced a busy two-lane highway at the far north end of town. A sprawling brick structure with a wing at each end, it was frontally divided by a tall, wide bay with tinted floor-to-ceiling windows that overlooked a landscaped grass median bordered on both sides by walkways and parking slots. The pinkish color of desert sand, the building was striking, with several tiled rooflines that peaked and sloped together. At the back of the clinic, a large, unpaved parking area peppered with barnlike structures, fenced enclosures, and ponderosa pines created a rural backdrop that suited the sparsely populated surroundings. The largest of the outbuildings bore a sign that sported the silhouette of a horse and the words EQUINE CENTER. It took Laura a second to sound out the words and to recall what they meant. No small operation, this, but a full-scale hospital for both large and small animals. Did she really want to work in a place like this?

More important, could she handle the responsibility? She was fairly happy as things were. A little lonely, maybe— okay, a lot lonely— but she managed to keep busy with her odd jobs and hobbies, and overall her life was far better now than the doctors and therapists had predicted five years ago. As long as she remained calm, she could speak fairly well, and she was finally able to watch television and movies, which she greatly enjoyed. Recently she'd even improved enough to listen to books on tape and could understand practically all the words. Why turn her world topsy-turvy by taking a job that might overwhelm her? Once she got a taste of something more, would she ever again be satisfied with her life as it was now?

Greatly tempted to drive away, Laura continued to stare at the clinic. What if kennel keepers were required to administer medication, and she misread a label? Or what if she had to take temperatures when the animals were sick? She had no idea if she could read a thermometer. Don't set yourself up for failure. That motto, drilled into her at rehab, had saved her a lot of grief over the last five years.

But she wanted this job. It would be so wonderful to work with other people again— to possibly even make friends close to her own age. She craved more human contact— a chance to talk and laugh with others, maybe even enjoy an occasional night out with the girls. She would never have those pleasures in her life if she always played it safe. Change involved a certain amount of risk, and taking chances took courage. It all boiled down to one question: Was she a coward?

Laura wrenched open the driver door and forced herself to exit the vehicle. One step at a time. Why worry about worst-case scenarios before she even got the job? During the interview she would be completely forthright with Isaiah Coulter about her disability. If he still wanted to hire her, she'd be delighted. If not, she would accept it, go home, and be happy with things as they were.

As Laura approached the clinic, she took measured breaths and forced the tension from her body. When she got in there, she wanted to put her best foot forward, not babble like an idiot and make a fool of herself. Aphasia, her type of brain damage, did not mix well with agitation. The last therapist had best explained it by likening Laura's brain to a complicated electrical panel, and agitation to a mental wrench that blew all the circuits. Staying calm was as vital as breathing to someone like her. To that end, Laura tried to talk herself down, something she'd done repeatedly since her conversation with Mary Coulter last night.

It's just a dumb job, a dead-end position most people wouldn't even want. Somehow, though, the words failed to comfort her as she grasped the handle of the door and pushed it open. She wasn't like most people, not anymore, and this might be her only chance to rejoin the workforce and lead a halfway normal life.

Laura stopped just inside the doorway. The spacious lobby was crammed with customers, several waiting in line at the U-shaped front desk, others seated in a divided waiting area to her right, one section for people with dogs, the other for those with cats. The drone of human voices was interspersed with the shrill barks of nervous canines and the terrified meows of felines imprisoned in pet carriers.

Four harried receptionists manned the counter, while two others bustled back and forth behind them, pulling files, plucking printouts from machines, and answering phones. Laura got a jumbled impression of pristine white walls, attractive cedar accents, a vaulted wood ceiling, and the faint, pleasing scent of lemony disinfectant. She had never imagined that a veterinary clinic would be this busy— or so interesting. She studied a dachshund in a bright yellow raincoat, then turned her attention to a small brown-and-white dog in a siren-red pet stroller. Recently she had watched a newscast about the billions of dollars Americans spent annually on their pets, but she'd never realized until now just how frivolous some of those expenditures were. She could scarcely believe her eyes when she saw a Chihuahua in a colorful wool poncho and a miniature sombrero. Amazing. And people thought she was strange?

Concerned about the time, she glanced at her watch, an old-fashioned clock-face timepiece with dots instead of numbers. Numbers tended to confuse her because she sometimes saw them upside down or backward. It was two dots shy of four thirty. Normally ten minutes would have given her plenty of leeway, but the lines at the desk were three and four deep and didn't appear to be moving quickly. She hated to wait her turn and risk being late for her appointment, but unless she crowded to the front, she saw no alternative.

Good manners won out, and she took her place behind a man in dusty jeans, a red windbreaker, and a greasy yellow ball cap.  

* * *

Shoulders aching from long hours in surgery, Isaiah hunkered down in front of a cage to check on a patient just coming out from under general anesthesia, a six-month-old chocolate Lab that had gotten its right rear leg tangled in barbed wire. By the time the owner found the dog, the leg had been damaged beyond repair, and Isaiah had had no choice but to amputate. The operation had gone well, but the pup had lost a great deal of blood and was weak despite a lifesaving transfusion from its sire.

"Hey, Hershey." Isaiah opened the cage door to check the dog's gum color. "Oh, yeah, you're doing great. Before you know it you'll be back on your feet and feeling fine."

The Labrador whined and nudged Isaiah's wrist with a dry nose. A firm believer that a little TLC was as important after surgery as pain management and good medical care, Isaiah stayed for a moment to scratch the animal's ears. It was sad to see a dog so young lose a leg, but Isaiah knew from experience that canines were amazingly resilient. If this pup recovered— and all indications were positive— the missing limb probably wouldn't slow him down.

"You've got a lot of great years ahead of you, Hershey," Isaiah whispered. The realization helped to ease the ache in his shoulders. Another success. Over time, Isaiah had learned to appreciate the successes, because, like any doctor, he also had many failures. "A lot of great years."

Just then Isaiah heard someone enter the room behind him. Because of the hour, he guessed without looking that it was Belinda, the technician who had assisted him in surgery all afternoon. She opened the fridge. An instant later a soft spewing sound told him she'd just pulled the tab on a soft-drink can. "You thirsty?" she asked. "All we've got is diet orange, but it's wet."

"No, thanks." What Isaiah needed was a hearty meal. He'd had a bagel for breakfast early that morning and hadn't had a chance to eat since. It was now half past six. "I think I'll wrap it up and get out of here." He pushed to his feet and gave her a weary smile. "You do the same. You put in one hell of a day."

A brunette with regular features, pretty brown eyes, and a great figure, Belinda laughed softly. "In the six months since I've been here, when haven't we put in a hell of a day?"

"Point taken." Isaiah rubbed the back of his neck. "Tucker and I need to bring in a couple of partners."

"Good idea. Unfortunately that won't help us out tonight." She flashed him a saucy grin. "Got any plans for dinner? I make a mean spaghetti sauce, and I've got a fabulous merlot I've been saving for a special occasion."

This wasn't the first time Belinda had invited Isaiah over for a cozy supper, and he was running out of polite excuses. Meeting her hopeful gaze, he decided it was time to level with her. "You're an attractive lady, Belinda."

"Glad you noticed."

"Oh, I've noticed." Not wishing to hurt her feelings, Isaiah injected more enthusiasm into that rejoinder than he actually felt. The truth was, he worked too hard and slept too little nowadays to feel much interest in the opposite sex. "But for purely selfish reasons, I'm not going to act on it. You're a valuable member of my team here at the clinic. I can't risk losing you over a workplace romance gone sour."

She set the soda can on the counter and shrugged out of her blue smock. Underneath, she wore a tight green sweater that showcased ample breasts. "We have so much in common: a keen interest in veterinary medicine, a love of animals, and a mutual desire to excel at what we do. What's to say it'll ever go sour?"

Isaiah chuckled. "Murphy's Law." He crossed the room, clasped her shoulder, and gave her what he hoped was a regretful smile. "Let's keep it professional. All right? You're a fabulous tech, one of the best we've had."

"I'll take that as a compliment, even though you haven't been in business all that long."

"Going on three years— long enough to know a great technician when I see one. We can't afford to lose you."

Her eyes went misty. The corners of her mouth quivered as she said, "Spaghetti and professional conversation, then. We both have to eat."

"I'm done in," he replied. "Maybe another time. Tonight the spaghetti will come out of a can— if I can muster the energy to hunt up the can opener."

"You don't know what you're missing," she called as he left the room.

Isaiah didn't bother with a reply. He'd been polite, hadn't minced words. There was nothing more to say. Maybe Belinda was one of those women who had trouble taking no for an answer— or maybe he was sending her mixed signals. That was possible, he supposed. He admired her professional skills and enjoyed her quick wit and sense of humor. Unfortunately, liking a woman and wanting an intimate relationship with her were two different things. Belinda was attractive, but he felt no spark, no zing. Not that it came as a surprise. The clinic was so busy that even Tucker, who had taken their brother Hank's place as the Coulter family lothario, had backed off on dating recently. Neither he nor Isaiah had the time or energy for much of a social life.

Isaiah opened his office door, stepped inside, and stopped dead. A blonde was straightening the framed diplomas on the wall behind his desk. He gave her slender backside a slow once-over. She wore a loose, bulky white sweater that somehow managed to accentuate the narrow expanse of her shoulders and the trimness of her waist. As his gaze dipped lower, his recent certainty that he was too preoccupied and exhausted to feel physical attraction went out the proverbial window. Snug blue jeans cupped a delightfully well rounded posterior and showcased a pair of shapely legs that begged for a much longer look. Because it was so late, Isaiah assumed she worked for the janitorial service that came in each evening after the clinic closed.

"Hi, there."

She jumped as if he'd jabbed her with an electric prod and whirled to face him. "Oh!" She splayed a slender, fine-boned hand at the base of her throat. "I'm sorry— for touching your things. They were— hanging crooked."

She spoke in a slow, halting way that Isaiah blamed on nervousness. "I hope you dust them while you're at it. Half the time they forget, and Val, our office manager, goes ballistic when she finds cobwebs."

A bewildered look came over her face. And a very pretty face it was, an almost perfect oval with large hazel eyes lined with thick, sooty lashes, delicate features, and a full, lush mouth. Her hair was the color of expensive cognac, streaked with wisps of lighter blond, and was cut in a collar-length, every-which-way style. Isaiah felt sure he had never seen the lady before. He would have remembered. No big surprise. The cleaning company was continuously training new people, mostly college students in sore need of extra cash. This woman looked older than that, but not by much, late twenties at a guess. He wondered if she was studying for her master's degree.

"No need to stop what you were doing," he told her. "I'm not here to work. I just have to grab a couple of things." As he leaned around the door to get his jacket, he added, "Can you make sure to empty my trash? They've forgotten to dump it a few times."

"Your trash?"

The confusion in her voice caught Isaiah back just as he started to tug his jacket from the hook. Hand hovering over the leather, he gave her another long study. "You are one of the cleaning crew, right?" When she only gaped at him, he lowered his arm. "No, I guess not." He ventured an inquisitive smile. "So, who are you, then?"

"My name is—" She broke off, flicked the tip of her tongue over her lower lip, and then stared at him with what could only be mounting dismay. "My name is—" She thrust a hand into her hair and took three deep breaths. "Oh, God, just give me a second."

"No problem." Relaxing his weight against the door to push it closed, he crossed his arms and offered her another smile. "Maybe we should move on to how I can help you and come back to the name business later."

Some of the rigidity left her body. She pressed a fingertip against her temple, closed her eyes, and slowly exhaled. "I'm L-Laura Townsend."

Isaiah's stomach dropped. Laura Townsend, the four-thirty interview. The memory punched into his mind like a hard fist. He'd been doing an exploratory on a shepherd with a lacerated bowel when Gloria, one of the secretaries, had paged him on the intercom. "Tell Gloria to have Ms. Townsend wait in my office," he had told one of the techs, and then the chocolate Lab had come in with a mangled leg, and he had completely forgotten about it. All the starch went out of Isaiah's spine. He let his head fall back against the door and almost groaned. "I am so sorry." He straightened and glanced at his watch. Two hours— she'd been waiting for over two hours. He would have been climbing the walls. "This is inexcusable." He hurriedly explained about the emergencies that had come in. "Things got so crazy, I totally forgot you were here."

"It's okay." Her lovely eyes went dark with concern. "Did the dogs both live?"

Once again, Isaiah noticed how slowly and deliberately she formed her sentences. Brain damage. It all made sense now— her flustered reaction when he startled her, then the confusion about her name. "The shepherd swallowed a piece of glass," he replied. "Fortunately his owners suspected that he had, and the moment he started to act sick, they brought him in. The damage wasn't as bad as it could have been. I think he'll pull through."

She looked relieved to hear that, which told him more about her than she could possibly know. "What about the Lab?" she asked. "Will he live, too?"

"He'll make it, but he wasn't quite so lucky. The leg couldn't be saved."

"Oh, no." A distant look entered her eyes. "The poor thing. How will he walk?"

"Dogs are amazing creatures. They do very well on only three legs. In a few weeks he'll be back out chasing field mice and squirrels." Isaiah pushed erect. "Enough about that. I can't believe I left you waiting all this time. You must think I'm the rudest person alive."

She hugged her waist and shook her head. "Saving two dogs was much more im-portant than the meeting with me."

She said important as though it were two separate words. "The least I could have done was send someone to tell you I was tied up."

"It was better that I waited." Her mouth turned up sweetly at the corners. Her smile lent her lovely countenance a glow that made him feel as if the sun had just broken through on an overcast day. "It gave me a chance to hear all the stuff going on out there." She inclined her head toward the door. "It gets very busy here— hurt ani-mals and upset people. I don't think I'm right for the job, after all."

Isaiah was still struggling with the fact that this was Laura Townsend. Granted, his mother had told him she was pretty, but he'd learned from hard experience that Mary Coulter's taste in women seldom jived with his own. There had also been the brain-damage thing. Maybe it had been bad of him— okay, no maybe to it; it had been really bad of him— but he had envisioned a dumpy, shuffling individual with a vacuous expression and a bottom lip perpetually shiny with drool. He hadn't been prepared for hazel eyes bright with intelligence, a body that could stop traffic, or a face to break a man's heart.

When she moved past him to get her coat, he snapped back to the moment. "You're leaving?"

Smiling, she tugged the pink jacket from a hook. As she drew it on, she nodded. "I think it's best." She drew her purse from where it had been hanging beneath the coat. "You need someone who's quick on her feet, not someone like me, who gets rattled and forgets her name."

As she started for the door, Isaiah made a snap decision. "I need someone who loves animals." Even as he spoke, he had to wonder what he was doing. "Working in the back, you seldom have to deal with emergencies."


"By the time a dog or cat is put in a kennel, the worst is usually over. The job mostly involves washing down cages, changing bedding, and refilling food and water dishes. The only confusion in the kennels is usually generated by the animals themselves. The dogs tend to bark a lot, trying to get attention. The noise is so bad you can barely hear yourself think. The cats meow almost as much, probably for the same reason."

She gave him a wondering look. "And that's all there is to it?" She pushed at her hair. The golden wisps drifted back into place like strands of silk. "I wouldn't have to give out meds or take temps?"

Isaiah noted that she shortened both long words in that sentence. Words with more than two syllables were clearly difficult for her to pronounce. "No medications, no taking temperatures," he assured her. "My mom says you're absolutely fabulous with dogs. Is that true?"

Still smiling, she wrinkled her nose, a gesture he felt sure was meant to convey humility, but instead only made her look cute as a button. "I like them a lot." She lifted her narrow shoulders in a slight shrug. "They don't care how well I can talk, only how my voice sounds."

Isaiah didn't care how well she could talk, either. She managed to communicate. That was all that mattered. "Do you like cats?"

"Yes. Not as much as dogs, but I like them."

Isaiah crossed his arms. Before he could offer the lady a job, there was a lot more about her that he needed to know, but he was well on his way to believing that his mother was right: Laura Townsend might have what it took to be a great kennel keeper. "If I apologize profusely for making you wait, ingratiate myself, and beg a lot, will you stay and let me interview you for the job? If I let you leave without at least talking to you, my mom will have my head."

A dimple flashed in her cheek. "Your mom is a sweet lady. She won't be mad. Just tell her you don't think I'm right for the job."

"That isn't precisely true. I think you may be perfect for the job."

"You do?"

He gestured at the castered chair in front of his desk. "Please, Laura, have a seat. Maybe you're right, and you aren't suited for the work. Neither of us will ever know if you won't stay and discuss the particulars with me."

She glanced hesitantly at the chair. Isaiah saw that she was sorely tempted, which told him she wanted the job a lot more than she was letting on.

"Just to talk," he assured her, and then settled the matter by grasping her elbow to lead her toward the desk. After pressing her down onto the chair, he circled to sit across from her. She hugged the coat close as if she were chilled. Isaiah rocked back in his chair and rested a booted foot on his opposite knee. "Kennel work requires three things: a love of animals, a kind heart, and a strong stomach. On a glamour scale of one to ten, it's about a negative one."

He saw a tiny frown pleat her brow and wondered if he might be talking too fast. Relaxing more deeply into the leather cushions, he made a conscious effort to slow down. "The worst part of the job is having to clean up a lot of smelly messes," he went on. "We occasionally board healthy animals, but mostly they're either sick or recovering from surgery."

She clasped her hands on her lap, the clench of her fingers so tight that her knuckles went pale. "Did your mom tell you I have brain damage, Dr. Coulter?"

"Isaiah," he corrected, "and, yes, she mentioned it. A swimming accident, I believe she said."

She nodded. "Five years ago. It left me with aphasia." Her cheek dimpled in a fleeting smile. "I can finally say it. For a long time I couldn't."

Isaiah subscribed to a few medical journals to keep abreast of the advances made in treatments for humans. Canines had many of the same ailments, and the same medications often helped them. As a result, he had recently read an article about aphasia, which affected approximately a million Americans to varying degrees, their numbers growing at an alarming rate of about eighty thousand annually. Some people became afflicted because of strokes, others due to head injuries that damaged the left lobe of the brain.

"Ah," he said. "Aphasia affects language, doesn't it?" Isaiah also knew what aphasia did not affect— a person's intelligence. Victims were essentially trapped in their own bodies, the damage to the left lobe interfering with normal brain signals. Many people had weakness on the right side of the body. In severe cases, sufferers were unable to speak and understood very little or nothing of what was said to them. Laura Townsend was fortunate in that regard. "You seem to speak quite well."

"I couldn't at first." She looked him directly in the eye. "And I still have problems."

Now that he knew what kind of brain damage she had, Isaiah better understood why.

"Even if I'm thinking the right word," she went on, "I can say the wrong one— and sometimes when I get nervous, even words that should be easy, like my name, just won't come to me."

Little wonder his mother's heart went out to this young woman. She was beautiful and obviously very bright. One had only to look into her eyes to see that. Yet she'd been reduced to this— applying for a menial job that many people wouldn't even want. Even sadder was the undeniable fact that neither he nor any other vet would normally consider hiring her. The realization made him feel small. How many people like Laura lived in or around Crystal Falls—people the world ignored and had left behind? Her brain injury clearly wasn't so severe that she had nothing to contribute. All she needed was for someone to give her a break.

He hated to embarrass her by asking personal questions. When he tried to imagine how he might feel if he were in her shoes, he almost cringed. But there were some things he had to know before he offered her a job. "Are you able to read, Laura?"

"On a good day." She shrugged, the gesture implying that there were worse things. "About a third-grade level the last time I was tested."

He tugged on his earlobe. "And on a bad day?"

"The letters jump around." She pushed at her hair again, a gesture he was coming to suspect was a nervous habit. "My per-periph—" She broke off and lifted her hands in defeat.

"Your peripheral vision?" he supplied.

She nodded. "It's messed up, worse some days than others. I can still read the words in the middle— if they're short."

Isaiah jotted a note on a Post-It pad, ripped off the top sheet, and handed it to her. "Can you read that?"

She stared down at the writing for a full two seconds. "This isn't a good day," she said with an airy laugh that was just a little shaky. "When I get nervous, it's always worse."

A strange, achy sensation filled Isaiah's throat. Being tested on her reading ability obviously unsettled her. "It's not a pass-or-fail thing. Just take your time. Give it your best shot."

Her delicate brows scrunched together over the bridge of her nose. "You spelled out the numbers."

"We do that here to avoid mistakes. I had a one mistaken for a seven once. Luckily the result wasn't disastrous. Now it's our policy to write the number and also spell it out."

She looked relieved. "That's good. That you spell them out, I mean. Numbers are tricky for me. Sometimes I see them upside down or backward." She hunched over the note, frowned again, and haltingly read the words aloud. "Three— cups— dry— food, two—" She broke off and looked up. "There's an X all by itself."

"It's an abbreviation for 'times,' in this case, two times daily. I use it a lot in chart instructions."

"Oh." She nodded. "Two times daily. I see." She laid the paper on the desk and smoothed the tacky edge with trembling fingertips.

Watching her, Isaiah found himself wanting to pat her hand. "You managed that very nicely. Can you remember from now on what an X stands for?"

"I think so."

"Do you have difficulty counting?"

"I lose track without my beans."

He'd been almost convinced that she could do the work. Now she'd thrown him a curveball. "Without your what?"

"Beans." She fished in a pocket of her coat and held out her hand. Several dried kidney beans rested on her outstretched palm. "It's— a trick— from rehab. I carry twenty with me. That way, when I have to count, I don't lose track."

"What if you have to count to over twenty?"

She put the beans back in her pocket. "I'm in deep doo-doo."

He gave a startled laugh, pleased on the one hand that she could joke about it, but sad for her as well. "What did you do for a living before your accident, Laura? My mom couldn't recall."

She puffed air into her cheeks. "Why does that matter? I can't do it now."

Isaiah acknowledged the point with a nod. "True, and it doesn't really matter. I'm just curious."

"I, um, did— studies— before they built roads." She pressed her lips together and swallowed. "To see if traffic would hurt the plants and ani-mals." She gestured helplessly again. Her eyes darkened with frustration. "I was an env-envi—" She went back to clasping her hands, the tendons in her neck growing distended as she struggled to speak. Finally she released a taut breath, squeezed her eyes closed, and shook her head.

Isaiah realized that he was leaning forward in the chair, his muscles knotted, his teeth clenched. God. He wanted to help her get the words out, only he couldn't. "An environmental scientist?" he offered.

Her sooty lashes fluttered open. "Yes. I w-worked all over the N-Northwest."

She'd once done environmental-impact studies, and now she had to carry beans in her pocket in order to count? He had taken tons of biology courses while studying to become a vet and had a fair idea of what it took to become an environmental scientist. What courage it must have taken for her to pick up the shattered pieces of her life and build a new one. In a very real way, she was a phoenix that had risen from the ashes. Gazing across the desk at her, Isaiah reached a decision guaranteed to please his mother. "Being a kennel keeper won't be nearly as exciting as doing environmental-impact studies."

"I don't care about excitement. I'd just like a normal job again. I miss working with people and having friends."

Searching her expression, Isaiah could almost taste her yearning. "If a job is all you want, you're in luck. Judging by what I've seen so far, there's no reason you shouldn't be able to handle this one just fine."

"There isn't?"

She sounded so incredulous that Isaiah chuckled. "No, there isn't. You may need a little extra training before we let you take a shift by yourself, but that's a simple enough thing to arrange."

For an instant she looked at him as if he'd just offered her the moon. Then her expression clouded. "What if I make a bad mistake?"

"You'll be monitored closely during the training period. If you make a mistake, and I stress the 'if,' the person training you will catch it. At the end of two weeks we'll do a performance review. If you're going to have problems doing the work, it should be apparent by then." Isaiah lowered his foot to the floor and swiveled on his chair to face the desk. "It's only ten dollars an hour to start, and we can't offer you full-time. Veterinary clinics require an inordinate number of employees in order to cover all the shifts and give everyone enough time off."

Laura had never really thought about the behind-the-scenes operation of an animal clinic, but she supposed it would be similar to a hospital, with inpatients requiring constant care or observation.

"The animals are left alone here from about six in the evening— sometimes later, depending on when Tucker and I leave— until nine, when a night-shift person arrives," he went on. "Then they're left alone again from two in the morning until six. But aside from those brief periods, we've got to have someone here seven days a week. As a result, we have the usual full-time employees who work the same days all week— office personnel, technicians, and tech assistants— plus a number of part-time people who work rotating shifts. Kennel keepers fall into that group."

She nodded, an indication to Isaiah that she was following him. "For a kennel keeper, it works out to about twenty hours a week, I think."

"Part-time is better for me," she assured him. "I can't work too much without losing part of my assist-ance."

"There, you see? This may turn out to be the perfect job for you."

Her cheeks flushed with pleasure, and a gleam of excitement lighted her eyes. "Maybe so," she agreed.

"In addition to the position being only part-time, you'll also have two bosses, myself and my brother Tucker." Isaiah gestured toward the door. "Our building is laid out like a plus sign. We have the lobby at the front and a kennel at the rear, which serve both the north and south wings. Tucker conducts his practice in the north section; I conduct mine in the south, and we share the front office and the kennels. I have techs and assistants who work primarily with me. Tucker does as well. But the office and kennel people work for both of us."

"I see."

"Will it bother you, having two bosses?"

She considered the question for a moment and then shook her head. "I don't think so."

"Does that mean you'll take the job?"

She gave him a questioning look. "If your brother is going to be my boss, too, won't he want to meet me?"

Isaiah almost said that their mother would snatch Tucker bald-headed if he threw a wrench in the fan blades, but he settled for, "We're not quite that formal around here. Tucker and I trust each other's judgment. If I think you're the lady for the job, he won't quibble with my decision. And I do. Think you're the lady for the job, I mean."

She beamed another smile, revealing small, perfectly straight teeth. "Well, in that case, yes, I'd like to give it a try."

Isaiah had a feeling that try had been her motto for the last five years. Only a positive, do-or-die attitude had gotten her where she was today. He opened a drawer and drew out an application form. "How does this sound? We'll get you trained and see how you're doing in two weeks. If you've had problems doing the work, I'll let you go then, no hard feelings. If you're doing fine, we'll give it another two weeks, just to be sure, and then we'll make it permanent."

"That sounds good."

Isaiah asked the usual questions, getting her full name, her birth date, and her last place of employment. Because of her disability, her responses took a little longer than normal. By the time he got down to the withholding section, his stomach was snarling with hunger, and his hands were getting shaky. He hurriedly jotted down her Social Security number and returned the card to her. "That about covers it," he said, rocking back in the chair. "How soon can you start training?"

"I can come in mornings now. Later in the day will be harder. I do odd jobs. I don't want to quit any of them until I know this job will last. I need the money."

Isaiah tossed his pen on the desk blotter. "For the time being, training in the morning will work fine. If all goes well, we'll readdress your hours when the thirty days are up. Once you become a permanent member of the team, you'll be required to work the night shift about one week a month. It's from nine until two in the morning. We rotate our kennel people. That way no one gets stuck on night shift all the time. Will that pose a problem?"

She shook her head. "Nights are fine."

His stomach growled again, so loudly this time that her gaze dropped to his midsection. Embarrassed, he flattened a hand over his diaphragm. "I'm sorry. I haven't eaten since six this morning."

Her eyebrows lifted. "That isn't good for you."

"So my mother tells me." He smiled sheepishly. "When I get busy, I'm a little absentminded, I'm afraid."

Her eyes danced with amusement. "I noticed."

He had to laugh. "I really am sorry about that." He bumped his temple with the heel of his hand. "I can't believe I forgot you were waiting in here."

"I'm the queen of forget-ting. Don't feel bad." She nibbled her lower lip. "What's his name?"

Isaiah gave her a blank look. "Pardon?"

"The brown Lab that lost his leg."

"Ah. His name is Hershey, after the chocolate bar."

"Hershey," she repeated softly. "Maybe I'll get to meet him."

Isaiah would have offered to introduce her to the dog right then, but he was starving and needed to get something in his stomach fast. "That depends on when you can start training." He put the application in the center drawer. "He'll be here only a couple of days."

"As long as I have after-noons free for my other jobs, I can start right away."


She thought about it for a moment, then nodded.

Urgency to eat driving him, Isaiah rose and circled the desk to grab his jacket. "Can you come in at six? They start pretty early in the kennels."

"Six will be fine."

As he slipped on his coat, he said, "I'll leave a note for Susan Strong, the gal who'll be opening up in the morning. If I'm not here, she'll get you all lined up."

Laura retrieved her purse from the floor and slung the strap over her shoulder as she stood up. "Thank you. I'm very glad for this chance. I can't promise I won't make mistakes, but I'll try my best."

"Your best is all anyone can expect." She nodded and turned to the door. At the last second, she hesitated and glanced back at him. "One thing."

"What's that?" She swallowed hard and stood there for a moment, turning the doorknob back and forth. Her eyes sparkled with pride as she met his gaze. "I need to know that you'll tell me if I'm not doing the work well enough. I don't want the job unless I'm really good at it."

"I'll tell you," he promised. She nodded, said good night, and let herself out.

Isaiah stared somberly at the closed door after she left, wondering if he'd be able to follow through on that promise. Laura Townsend had touched him in a way few people ever had. If she wasn't able to do the work and he had to fire her, it would be one of the hardest things he'd ever done in his professional career.

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